COMMENT: Science miscommunication hamstrings the truth

Published by Aoife Rose O'Reilly on

9th January, 2017

Something has been getting my goat of late. What is it you wonder? Has yet another of my houseplants died? Is it the incomprehensible mumbling that comes over the train intercom when it’s delayed? The lack of an Insomnia near me?

No, the latest thing to annoy me is scientific communication. Or more accurately, miscommunication.

It’s hard to know where to start- the misleading headlines? The general misunderstanding of terms propagated across media? Squiffy datasets and error ranges you could drive a bus through? Off-the-wall statements by absolute non-experts heralded as absolute truth?

In our brave new post-truth world, scrutiny of information and fact-checking are becoming ever more vital. The last year has made two things very clear; that there is a fundamental lack of accessibility with scientific issues, and that some elements of society want to mislead others.

By its very nature scientific research is something of an ivory tower to the outside world. It takes a few years to be trained in the language and ways of thinking that dominate research and papers, time that the bulk of people simply do not have. They rely on writers, academics and sometimes politicians to digest and translate dense terminology and discoveries into an understandable format.

Unfortunately, we are still trying to figure out a common language and this can result in confusion.

Our thumbs are getting bigger, says the headline. Clearly it is evolution as we all text so much, right? Well, the average person has gotten bigger due to improved nutrition. If you look around now a lot of the younger generation are taller than their parents. Thus their thumbs are bigger now too. Was this weighted for in the study?

It is these kind of questions that must be taken into account when reading up on scientific discoveries- and these kinds of flaws that the unscrupulous take advantage of in order to deceive you. But there are a few rules of thumb (harhar) that can be used when reading up on the latest discoveries- or arguing on Facebook with relatives who are wrong.

One: Words in a scientific context often mean different things than in a standard context.

Scientific theory is the main example of this. Theory, in standard language, is an idea you have, an approximation or a belief. In contrast scientific theory is an explanation for something that has been proven multiple times over by controlled experiments. It is something that has been repeated many times over by many different peoples within the parameters of the scientific method.

A scientific theory is something that can withstand scrutiny.

Two: Misconceptions of common theories.

There is a tough bridge to gap when describing a theory, to put it into easily digestible bites. This can unfortunately lead to inaccurate descriptions.

One of my pet-hates is Survival of the Fittest. We all know what that means- you have to be strong and fast and aggressive to do well in life, make lots of money and consider yourself a success…except by Darwinian evolutionary understanding, fitness represents reproductive success. In other words your ability to have offspring that survive to adulthood and have offspring of their own.

Or your ability to raise and protect your siblings offspring should you have none of your own- remember, you still share some DNA with your siblings so helping them survive is in your favour. In an evolutionary sense.

This is worth bearing in mind with the analysis of new discoveries and political speeches. Does the subject know what their words mean? Is their rhetoric pseudo-scientific, incorrect nonsense? If so, that isn’t the only thing they will misunderstand and lie about.

Three: Quality and quantity of data.

This aspect concerns the cold hard data rather than the public analysis of it. Essentially, if I have data that looks like someone took a shotgun to a graph, I can draw a line through that in any direction and take any conclusion I want from it. This is why reproducible results are so important- if there are 99 papers saying climate change is happening and 1 saying it isn’t, its likely something has gone wrong somewhere for that 1 study. Be it deliberate or not.

But then, sometimes large datasets are impossible. Hauling in large quantities of DNA from the Kenyan savanna, for example, can be difficult. It is also a case of understanding context. Unfortunately this is often beyond us, both for reasons of time and for reasons of the paper is behind a paywall.

A scientific education takes years, never mind the ability and time to read a paper and be skeptical of its data set. But it sadly results in people seeing flawed headlines, thinking that makes sense, and moving on with incorrect knowledge, not realizing the significance or insignificance of certain discoveries and not knowing when they’ve been duped.

Worse again, there seems to be a growing inclination to believe inaccurate statements that concur with your worldview vs. dozens of truthful scientific statements. Many years of careful study mean nothing compared to bluster, charisma and outright lies. Maybe its just easier to believe what you’re told.

But sadly we don’t live in a world where we can get away with that anymore. Misconceptions and the confusion they cause do too much harm. There are far too many elements out there who are far too interested in people been kept uninformed- or even misinformed. This goes for subjects beyond the scientific sphere, too. At this stage, we can’t let it slide anymore. Truth must out, no matter how much it gets twisted or tangled.

There’s no easy solution to this. It’s hard to tell when the truth has simply become confused, and when its been deliberately co-opted.

To start, be skeptical- but be skeptical of the right things. Use the three points above to guide you and then discover a method of your own. Reach out to those you trust and create a net through which untruths and deceit cannot pass. We can escape this murky place together.

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Aoife Rose O'Reilly

Aoife is a contributor to Green News. She has a degree in Natural Sciences from Trinity College Dublin and an MSC in Evolutionary Biology from UCD. She also volunteers with Dublin Zoo.